Pax for 3! My favorite Bulls game
Why Game 6 of the 1993 NBA Finals is among my favorite Chicago sports moments.
“We ran what we call an ‘open,’ and when (the Suns defenders) went to the paint, I was open. I just hit the shot.”
— John Paxson, June 20, 1993
The Charles Smith Game.
The Flu Game.
The Last Shot.
Bulls fans around for the dynasty were blessed with one iconic game after another.
But if I could only watch one Bulls game for the rest of my life, I would choose a game summed up by another three words:
Paxson for 3.
Game 6 of the 1993 NBA Finals was 30 years ago today, and on a personal level, the dynasty never got better than that night in Phoenix. That’s because while it’s easy to pull for the favorite, your sports fan identity comes in the seasons when your team is the underdog. It’s crazy to think that an underdog can be a two-time defending champ that stars someone already garnering “greatest of all-time” praise and has an Olympian as its #2 man, but that was the ‘93 Bulls. Felt like the mass sports media was pre-emptively putting a “sell by” date on our heroes, picking against them every step of the way, whether for MVP — Michael Jordan should have joined Russell, Wilt and Bird as the only three-peat MVPs — or for predictions on who would represent the East in the Finals.
We’re not even talking champs here. We’re just talking the East’s Finals team. And boy did pundits of the newspaper, magazine, radio and TV stripes love picking against our Bulls. To kick off the season, Sports Illustrated’s NBA preview issue went out of its way to ignore the Bulls. New Phoenix Suns star Charles Barkley was on the cover. A feature on head coaches showed pictures of eight head coaches1, none of whom were the coach of the two-time reigning champs.
S.I. did have a feature on Horace and Harvey Grant, and another on MJ’s agent David Falk, but nowhere did the sports magazine of record truly celebrate this team that was second only to The Dream Team that summer in most popular basketball clubs worldwide.
And once the Suns wrapped the NBA’s best record while New York won the top seed in the East, media members seemed to have their preferred Finals matchup: the darling Phoenix Suns against the down-and-dirty Knicks.
The Bulls swept the first two rounds of the playoffs, fell behind 0-2 in the ECF at Madison Square Garden and then won four straight to knock out New York, and then another two in the Finals, becoming the first team to win Games 1 and 2 of the Finals on the road. We lost a triple-overtime thriller at home in Game 3, MJ dropped 55 in Game 4 — tied for the second highest Finals game behind Elgin Baylor’s 61 — and lost Game 5 by 10. The series was back in Phoenix for two games, and though no team had ever come back down 3-1 in the Finals, the Suns referred to themselves as a “team of destiny.”
Who better than the destined to make history?
Well, we were destined too.
No one thought so but us.
That’s why I adore Game 6. It’s fun to root for the team thumping everyone. But what’s special is rooting for a club that the world has written off.
That was the hype. The game itself was like the marketing campaign of a summer blockbuster: a thrill ride for the ages!
The Bulls put up the greatest three-point shooting game in the history of the Finals, getting a huge game from B.J. Armstrong (4-5 from 3, 6-10 from the floor, 18 points) and a clutch surprise game from Trent Tucker (4-4 on field goals including one three and a team leading nine points off the bench). MJ and Pippen continued their torrid Finals; Jordan had 33 with 8 boards and 7 assists on .500 shooting, while Pip had 23 and 12 rebounds, along with 5 assists and 4 steals.
Yet with a minute to go, that did not seem like it would be enough. We trailed Phoenix 98-94. The team was cold, with only seven points in the 4th, all from Jordan. Game 7 was a real threat.
MJ handled the first part: he rebounded a Suns miss and darted the length of the floor for a one-handed gliding layup. Seriously, look where Jordan picked up his dribble:
The Bulls defense handled the second part: the Suns kept looking for the open man and the Bulls kept recovering, one rotation after another. Phoenix played hot potato — Barkley to KJ to Majerle to Frank Johnson and back to Majerle. When the Suns finally took a shot, Majerle airballed a short baseline jumper for a 24-second violation. The Bulls went to the huddle.
And thus began my favorite sequence in Bulls history.
“As soon as the timeout was called, Phil said, ‘Let’s go away from (Michael Jordan),” B.J. said after the game. “We looked around like, ‘What’s he talking about? Is he joking?’ … He said it to relax us and to get a chuckle.”
The question of what exactly the Bulls planned is a real question. Both B.J. and Phil said that Phil asked the team whether they wanted to go for the tie or try for the 3 and the win. But what the players answered, and what the play call was, remain a matter of debate. Phil and Paxson each said postgame that the play was designed for MJ. “The play was designed to space the floor (and) give Michael and opportunity to create,” Paxson said.
But Paxson also suggested that Pippen would be the one to drive to the cup.
“He (Pippen) was going to penetrate and try and get the basket,” the Tribune quoted Paxson.
Still, if the play was for MJ, he seemed to abandon it quickly. Michael darted a pass to Pippen near midcourt as soon as Kevin Johnson rushed him. Pippen then turned and indeed started charging the basket. Was he penetrating and creating like Paxson suggested? Was he supposed to hold the ball until MJ got into the frontcourt? A few newspaper writers said that was the plan but that Jordan wasn’t open, but Pip didn’t really wait to see.
If the plan was for Pippen to drive and create, I’ve never seen him say so. Here is how he described the play in his 2021 memoir Unguarded:
“The Suns assumed Michael would take the last shot. When didn’t he take the last shot? The official handed the ball to Michael, who threw it in bounds to B.J., who promptly threw it back to him. MJ dribbled toward half-court, and with Kevin Johnson on him, he tossed it to me a few steps behind the top of the key. I drove past Charles, then dished the ball to Horace, who had a clear path for a layup on the left baseline.”
What we do know is that throughout the possession, the Phoenix defense was one man slow. They were behind in getting to MJ, and then they were behind in getting to Scottie, and then Scottie whipped a pass under the basket to Horace and they were behind again.
And finally, they were so far behind that Grant pivoted to his right and fired a pass to Paxson, who was waiting at the three-point line.
“He was open, and there was no way I was going to dunk the ball,” said Grant that night. “So I tried to look for the open man.”
Horace did not want to get fouled. When he caught that pass, he was a combined 0-9 for two points across Games 5 and 6. “I wasn’t going to get fouled,” he said. “The way I was shooting free throws? I don’t think so.”
So he dished to Paxson who calmly drilled the winning 3.
“I’ve been playing basketball since I was eight years old,” Paxson said. “I’ve taken hundreds of thousands of shots in my driveway. It’s a reaction. It’s what you practice.”
Jordan didn’t write about the specifics of the play in any of his autobiographies. They didn’t get into that level of detail in The Last Dance. If the play was for Jordan, he hasn’t claimed it. If the play was for Pippen, he hasn’t either. Want to know what I think?
I think is this was simply the act of a team with the triangle in its bones.
The triangle offense is about three principles: trust your teammates, keep the ball moving faster than the defense, read-and-react.
The Suns stepped to the Bulls and the Bulls read the defense and reacted. MJ was a little bit open, he found Pippen who was a little bit more open, Pippen found Grant who was even more open, and Grant found Paxson who was completely open.
“Horace got the ball from Pippen near the basket and could have tried to muscle his way in for a dunk,” Phil wrote later in Sacred Hoops. “But instead he read the court and found Paxson wide open on the periphery. It was a completely unselfish act.”
I would say the same for the entire final possession. Jordan to Armstrong to Jordan to Pippen to Grant to Paxson. Read and react. Five fingers on a glove.
The Bulls had one more possession, this time on defense. Horace Grant, nearly the goat of two games, made two of the biggest plays in NBA history: the assist to Paxson and a clean block of Kevin Johnson’s would-be winner. KJ later said he didn’t think he had enough time to pass to Barkley.
A stop slow.
A step fast.
And the first NBA three-peat since Russell’s Celtics.
For more on Game 6 of the 1993 NBA Finals, in 2021 I joined my favorite sports podcast, “Bigger Than the Game” with Deremy Dove and Jose Ruiz. Enjoy the full episode here.
Also, here is my column from June 20, 2013, for the 20th anniversary of Game 6, and the connection I saw to LeBron James and that evening’s NBA Finals Game 7.
Hope everyone is having a great day!
Pat Riley, Lenny Wilkens, Don Nelson, Larry Brown, Mike Dunleavy, Chris Ford, Wes Unseld, Chuck Daly